The Old Man and the Empire

Polycarp waved his hand at the crowd and said, "Away with the Atheists."
Image courtesy of Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

In our day, courage and bravery are in short supply, especially among pastors. But there have been men who had it in abundance. Hugh Latimer (c. 1487-1555) was a man who was known for his courage throughout his life and in his death. Depending on the current opinion of the Court of England, Latimer was in and out of favor (and prison) throughout his life. He was at different times a Fellow at Oxford College, a priest of the Roman Catholic Church, a Bishop of the Church of England, a personal and spiritual adviser to the king, twice a prisoner in the Tower of London, and a court preacher for King Edward VI. Latimer was a man that came to know both political influence and political pressure. And though many a man has lost his integrity in either of these two positions, Hugh was able to stand firm and keep his integrity intact.

One New Year’s Day, when it was the custom of everyone with access to the court to bring rich or lavish gifts to the king, Latimer was the kind of man who brought a New Testament dog-eared and marked at the passage ‘Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.’ Henry, famous for both his profligacy and anger, could have easily had Latimer executed for speaking such truth to power. Instead Henry VIII is said to have “admired the good man's courage.”

The most famous example of his courage is also the one that gives us the greatest insight into its source. Hugh Latimer is one of ‘The Oxford Three’ that were martyred during the brutal reign of Queen “Bloody” Mary I. Hugh Latimer was tried and sentenced to be burned at the stake with Master Nicholas Ridley for preaching and teaching the Bible.

He and Master Ridley were then taken to Oxford square across from Balliol College in London. They were fastened with iron chains to the stake and wood was piled around them. As a burning piece of wood was brought and added to the wood pile that surrounded them, Latimer said, "Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God's grace, light up such a candle in England, as I trust, will never be put out."

Latimer is quoting Eusebius’ record of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, casting himself in the role of Polycarp. He could have courage because he and he knew how this story went. He had read it before.

Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69-155) was converted under the preaching of the Apostle John. He spent years as a pastor in Smyrna (in modern day Turkey). From there he sent missionaries that would establish the first church among the Celts. He had a hand in the training of the great theologian Irenaeus, who would eventually become the pastor of that celtic church after their missionary pastor Pothinus was martyred by Marcus Aurelius.

Irenaeus only met him as a very old man, but he recounts talking with people from Polycarp’s church. They retold Polycarp’s story of the Apostle John coming to Ephesus while Polycarp was a young man there.

Polycarp was a pastor known for his deep knowledge of the scriptures. He wrote an encouraging letter to the Philippian church that is still available to us today. Christians would travel from all over the empire to hear him preach and teach. His many years of experience had distilled into profound pastoral wisdom. He was well loved in his church, well known in his town, and had the respect of the broader church.

After many fruitful years of ministry, the Romans began persecuting the Christians in Smyrna. Pastors in the province began to be rounded up and thrown to the beasts for the entertainment of the citizens in the local Roman coliseum.

Germanicus, a pastor who was serving under Polycarp, was a promising young man. He was arrested and taken to the Coliseum and thrown down to the lions, but they didn’t attack. The Roman proconsul in charge called out to Germanicus, "You’re still a young man, you have your whole life ahead of you. Have some pity and just deny Christ so the flower of your life isn't wasted."

Already beaten and tortured before being thrown to the beasts, Germanicus began to drag his bloody and bruised body across the ground. If he was trying to escape he was moving the wrong way. His response to the Proconsul was to pull himself over to one of the lions that had not attacked him. Grabbing him by the mane, he pulled himself into the lion’s mouth, which immediately killed him.

The crowd, stunned at the spectacle of bravery, broke into a howling chant for more blood, "Kill the atheists! Kill the atheists! Send for Polycarp!"

The Roman Army knew how to torture. They had made an art of it. They had gathered up the various methods of torture and public death from around the world and brought them together as the inheritance of all of the empires of the ages. The Romans knew death. They knew how to give it. They knew how to package it and deliver it for the purposes of propaganda.

And the Emperor Marcus Aurelius had been having trouble with the Christians. He expected everyone to show their patriotism and devotion to the empire with a small religious and liturgical act of imperial devotion. Everyone would burn a pinch of incense to the "Genius of the Emperor" and declare that Caesar is Lord.

The problem with the Christians was that they insisted that Jesus was Lord over Caesar. The Emperor declared that he was the King of kings, but Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the God the Father where He is installed as the King of kings. The Caesar declared that he was the lord of the heavens who held the seven wandering stars in his right hand, but the church knew that the seven stars are in the right hand of Jesus (Rev. 1:16).

Polycarp, with no fear of death and a devotion to something above the Empire, had the Roman Empire shaking in their scrappy leather sandals.

The police captain met the wagon in which Polycarp was being transported in order to try and convince Polycarp, at such an age, to not put himself through the humiliation of execution. "Polycarp, what harm is it to just say, 'Lord Caesar,' to offer a little sacrifice and be saved?"

Polycarp said nothing.

"Polycarp, it is just a little incense, and a couple of words? It will keep you from being torn apart by wild animals."

Polycarp just said, "I won’t take your advice."

The police captain–who claimed to offer his advice in pity and care for an old man–had Polycarp dragged out of the cart, injuring Polycarp’s legs.

But Polycarp pulled himself up, and limped purposefully and directly into the arena. The crowds were in such a frenzy that you could not hear what your neighbor was saying, but,

When Polycarp entered into the arena there came a voice from heaven: "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." And no one saw the speaker, but many of our friends who were there heard the voice. And he was brought forward, and there was a great uproar of those who heard that Polycarp had been arrested.

Polycarp walked through the arena to stand before the Roman Proconsul.

“Respect your age. Swear by the Genius of Caesar. Repent. Say: `Away with the Atheists.’”

Polycarp waved his hand at the crowd and said, "Away with the Atheists."

The Proconsul said, "Take the oath. Revile Christ and I will let you go.”

Polycarp said: "For eighty and six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

“Swear by the Genius of Caesar!”

Polycarp responded, “If you suppose in vain that I will ‘swear by the Genius of Caesar,’ and want to pretend that you are ignorant of who I am, listen. I am a Christian. If you wish to learn the doctrine of Christianity fix a day. Let me teach you."

It is as if the Roman Proconsul says, "Look, I'm offering you a chance to get saved." And Polycarp's response is, "No, Proconsul, I'm offering you a chance to get saved."

The Proconsul is, by this point, furious at the insolence of the old and injured Polycarp. "I have wild beasts, I will throw you to them if you will not change your mind."

"Call for them,” said Polycarp. “Since I am right, I am not about to change my mind and begin being wrong. But you could change your mind and quit your evil. Then you would begin in righteousness.”

"Look Polycarp, if you're not afraid of wild beasts, then if you will not repent I will burn you to death."

"You threaten me with fire that burns for just a bit, but opens the door to everlasting life. But you do not realized that the fires of hell that I am trying to save you from will burn the wicked forever and ever without end. Do not wait Proconsul. Make your decision."

The proconsul was astounded.

The Romans had spread to the edges of the known world. They were able to do almost anything that the Empire decided to do. The only limit of the Empire seemed to be will power. Politics, military might, wealth, philosophy, none of them had ever been an obstacle.

But their empire was built on fear. Take the fear of death out of people the way that Jesus did, by being raised from the dead, and the empire and her governors are flummoxed.

The proconsul had it announced to the crowds that Polycarp was a Christian and the crowds at the games cried out with severe wrath and anger. “This is the one who has converted so many. This is the one who destroyed our gods."

The crowd rushed out to gather fuel for the fire.

As Polycarp began to ready himself to be burned alive, he took off his coat and tried to take off his shoes, but because he was so old, he could not bend down. This aged man, so feeble and frail he couldn't remove his own shoes, was seen as such a threat to the empire that he was dragged onto a pile of wood to be burned. When they came to tie him down he insisted that God would give him the strength to hold himself in the fire.

The Roman Empire was the most significant enemy of the gospel in the early church. This Empire had spread its influence to the edges of the known world. It had swallowed and assimilated entire language groups and cultures and civilization. But when it came up against a tiny band of Christians, a little group that was connected city to city, not by a significant institution, not by a political force, but by charity from the rich to the poor, by doctrine and prayer, and by a library held in common, the empire was confounded. When all of the power and force of the Roman Empire came crashing down on the Christian Church, it was the empire that crumpled. It was the empire that never recovered. It was the empire that was conquered.

The early church had the faith that it takes to be seed, planted in martyrdom, so that the harvest of the rest of the Empire and all of Europe could be accomplished in the medieval period. When the church was faced with the darkness of the wave of heathenism that was later named "The Dark Ages," it would be the seed that had been harvested from the martyr’s deaths that would be planted to the edges, and even beyond the edges, of the known world. Polycarp’s brave death lit a fire that consumed Europe over the next 1000 years.

God’s children need their imaginations to be formed and practiced at seeing God’s promises come true by stories that are told well enough for them to enter into them imaginatively and cast themselves as the characters. Stories in which righteousness, faith, and virtue are vindicated in the face of overwhelming odds.

Stories that give shape to the landscape of our imagination so that we can see a world in which God’s promises are all yes and amen in Christ. Because it takes faith to see the world as it really is, and as it could be.

Hugh Latimer, whose imagination had been trained towards faith by writers like Eusebius, could see that he was in the same position that Polycarp had been. And because he had heard the story, he knew how this story went. With his death, he was lighting a fire that would burn up England the way that the fires of Polycarp's death had consumed the whole Roman Empire.

Latimer had a faith that could see God’s promises on the other side of the stake. A faith that could hear God’s Word through the rush of the flames of persecution’s fire, ‘If you suffer with me, surely you will be glorified with me.’

He was being given the opportunity to be burned at the stake for Christ. He was following in Polycarp’s footsteps and he knew where this road led. Like Polycarp, he could play the man and lead God’s people through death to the resurrection life that God had planned for his people.

Join us as we build LOOR as a cinematic platform where stories like this won’t be canceled by a Digital Roman Empire that understands far better than God’s people why they ought to fear stories like Latimer's and Polycarp's.